Nick Xenophon
Former Senator Nick Xenophon

The campaign against the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ dramatic changes to the census ramped up further today with South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon vowing to refuse to provide his name in the most prominent act yet of census civil disobedience.

The national census is scheduled to be conducted tomorrow night and will commence a program of lifelong surveillance of each Australian as census data, personal information held by governments and future censuses are linked together with a personal identifier, enabling longitudinal study of every citizen. The ABS insists providing a name and address is compulsory, and they will be used as the basis for personal identifiers to track every citizens’ personal data.

Announcing he would not be providing his name, Xenophon, who now wields considerable power in the senate following the election of three NXT senators (and one House of Representatives member) said that the census had changed from a snapshot of the country to a “mobile CCTV” for every Australian that citizens would not be able to escape. Xenophon has previously been a strong critic of overreach by security agencies.

Xenophon’s announcement came amid a series of weekend developments undermining the ABS’ position and validating concerns about the census:

  • Constitutional lawyer Caroline Henckels, writing for the Castan Centre, backed the argument of former ABS head Bill McLennan that the ABS may not have the legal power to demand names, and that citizens would only be in breach of the law if directed to provide their names after census lodgement;
  • A senior privacy advocate and consultant, Anna Johnston, announced her concerns about the census were so great that she would be boycotting the census;
  • Former Australian Privacy Commissioner Malcolm Crompton AM revealed he would be travelling overseas to avoid the census;
  • More concerns emerged about the security of the ABS’ third-party IT systems provided by IBM that would be handling the census;
  • The Australian Privacy Foundation wrote to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and current ABS head David Kalisch asking for information about security precautions being taken by IBM and whether information would move offshore during the process (thereby making it subject to US data retention laws); and
  • News Corp tabloids reported the ABS planned to monetise “new products” produced by the census and links to other government data sources.

In response, the ABS has continued to threaten to fine anyone who fails to fully comply with the census, including providing name and address.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey